Ray Dolby wasn’t afraid of the unknown. He accepted it as a known fact of inventing.
To be an inventor, he said, “you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in this darkness and grope towards an answer, to put up with anxiety about whether there is an answer.”
Such was the scientist’s conundrum with background noise on analog tapes—a persistent flaw since the format’s inception in Germany in the early 1930s. Quiet passages and full pauses during musical performances revealed a sound that could best be described as a snake poised to attack. Boo, hiss.
Dolby, who had led the development of the electronic aspects of the Ampex videotape recording system in the 1950s, solved the hiss problem with what became known as the Dolby noise reduction system. Dolby NR became standard on virtually all music cassette decks as that tape format exploded into popularity in the 1970s.
The Dolby B system was introduced for the consumer market in 1968. It boosts high-frequency, low-level signals during the recording process so they are at a higher magnetic level on the tape. Then the inverse of the process is applied on playback, lowering tape noise.
Dolby forever changed the way we listen to music—and how music was made. Movies, too.
Thousands of films and billions of products have featured Dolby technologies. Director George Lucas said: “Ray’s pioneering work in sound played a pivotal role in allowing ‘Star Wars’ to be the truly immersive experience I had always dreamed it would be.”
The Dolby SR (Spectral Recording) noise reduction format further amped up audio quality. Developed by Dolby Laboratories and used in professional audio since 1986—and in cinema audio since the late 1980s—it combines aspects of Dolby A, B, and C to significantly improve the dynamic range of analog recordings. Dolby’s son, David Dolby, said this was his father’s most satisfying achievement.
We can thank Ray Dolby’s childhood love of the clarinet for the dynamic sound with which he became synonymous. His fascination with reed vibrations sparked his interest in how sound reproduces.
By 16, he was working with Ampex to develop electrical components of its tape recording system. He earned patents for the Ampex videotape recorder before he finished college.
By the time Dolby died in 2013 at age 80, Dolby Laboratories had become a global company with offices in more than 20 countries. He had more than 50 U.S. patents and numerous trademarks, including a well-known sound trademark that is often heard at the beginning of movies featuring HD surround sound.
Dolby was awarded a Grammy Award in 1995, an Oscar in 1989, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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